Monkeys and a Castle in Nagano Prefecture

I’m loving working at a British international school, in part because the yearly calendar is very reminiscent of the ones I grew up with (the new school year begins in late August and ends in June, instead of April to March as in Japanese schools). In mid-March, we had our Spring Break (something I had forgotten about but deeply appreciated, both then and now) a week before Japanese students ended their academic year.

So I took this opportunity to travel somewhere that would’ve otherwise been crowded — Nagano, to see the famous snow monkeys!

Wild Japanese Red Macaques

Wild Japanese Red Macaques

There have been countless nature documentaries broadcast around the world about these onsen-loving Japanese macaques. They are one of the main tourist draws to Nagano Prefecture (second only to the ski resorts), and it showed in both the amount of information available (in English!) while I was planning this trip, and in the number of helpful signs and people while I was there.

Seeing the snow monkeys has been on my bucket list for years now, so I planned this short 3D2N trip to fulfill a handful of specific targets, rather than meander slowly through the prefecture.

Skip to  –>  [ SNOW MONKEY PARK ]  ||  [ ZENKO-JI ]  ||  [ MATSUMOTO CASTLE ]  ||  [ FOOD in Nagano ]

(The information I’m listing here is accurate as of Winter 2015, but things may be different if you travel to see them during other times.)

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Getting to Nagano

Osaka Umeda Station

Osaka Umeda Station

Getting to Nagano took up most of the first day. I opted out of the Shinkansen, because it required several transfers from Kobe to Nagano. I was also reluctant to pay that much money for something that makes me a little ill whenever I ride it. Instead, I booked tickets through the Alpico highway bus company, which got me from Hankyu Umeda Station in Osaka directly to Nagano City’s JR station.

About 30 minutes outside of the city I could already see mountains

About 30 minutes outside of the city I could already see mountains

Funny story: the bus driver told us in Osaka that there had been reports of heavy snow en-route to Nagano, and if it became a safety hazard, we would be taken to Nagoya instead (so we could take the Shinkansen up the rest of the way). At the time, I wondered if he was being overly-cautious, but after 2 hours into our journey we drove right into the storm and I was momentarily transported back to Canada.

Woo, blizzard!

Woohoo, snow storm!

Luckily, we passed through without mishap, and the mountains sheltered us from the worst of it once we got to the other side (via a series of incredibly-long tunnels). The scenery along the way was breath-taking too!

Moving away from the storm...

Moving away from the storm…

I've really missed seeing mountains covered in snow! So beautiful~

I’ve really missed seeing mountains covered in snow! So beautiful~

Finally, Nagano City.

Finally, Nagano City.

All in all, the bus ride took roughly 6 hours before reaching Nagano City. I had decided to stay at 1166 Backpackers (hostel) for my two nights in the city — I do recommend booking with them if you’re travelling solo or in a small group. They were so friendly, and they’re located close to the tourist area around Zenkoji (but more about that below).

Fresh snow in the morning!

Fresh snow in the morning!

It snowed every morning I was in Nagano

It snowed every morning I was in Nagano

This Canadian girl was so happy!

This Canadian girl was so happy!


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Snow Monkey Park

The next morning, I headed back out to the station to catch the bus that would take me close to the Monkey Park. The proper name is “Jigokudani Yaen-Koen (地獄谷野猿公苑)“, but if you say in English “Snow Monkey Park”, most locals will understand what you mean. There is a wealth of information available on the web, so I will only mention some of the things I had to figure out for myself:

  • It seems the usual way to travel to the park is a combination of taking the train from Nagano to Yudanaka, and then transferring to a bus that gets you as far as Kanbayashi Onsen. From there you would walk the rest of the way. HOWEVER, the people at the hostel kindly informed me that there is also a direct bus available from Nagano Station to an area about 15-minutes-walk away from the park entrance!
Nagano JR Station (newly-renovated)

Nagano JR Station (newly-renovated)

This is will lead you to the Nagano Dentetsu line. Follow it all the way until you reach the gates.

This is will lead you to the Nagano Dentetsu line. Follow it all the way until you reach the gates.

  • To ride this bus, I had to first buy a “Snow Monkey Pass” (about ¥2900) from the Dentetsu side of Nagano Station (pictures above). The pass is for the whole day (unlimited rides) and also includes the admission fee into the monkey park (normally ¥500/person).
  • The bus departs from Terminal #3 on the east side of Nagano Station. (If you miss it, it’s a 1 and 1/2 hour wait for the next one!)
Countryside views from the NagaDen bus

Countryside views from the NagaDen bus

  • The bus will take you through rural Nagano, until you reach the “Kanbayashi Onsen-guchi” bus stop. I say bus stop, but there is only a gas station for a landmark…
  • Heading away from the gas station, there was an uphill slope that curved around. I followed it up until I reached a fork in the road, and then I made a right turn (if in doubt, head for higher ground).
  • There are actually three bus stops in the area that all have the same name (“Onsen-guchi”). I came from Stop #C, which is furthest from the entrance, but it directly connects from Nagano.
  • To return back to Nagano, there is a small hut on the opposite side of the road near the gas station. Double check the timetable on the wall (it’s in Japanese, so it’s worth memorizing the kanji for Nagano), but from memory, the buses only came once an hour.
Following the uphill road, past some houses.

Following the uphill road, past some houses.

Look out for this house near the main road! If you walk next to it, you're on the right path.

Look out for this house near the main road! If you’re walking up next to it, you’re on the right path.

A small pond between the houses

A small pond between the houses

I made my right turn when I saw this lodge.

I made my right turn when I saw this lodge.

As you can probably tell from the pictures, the road was covered in snow and ice (no sidewalks), so I recommend wearing shoes with a bit of grip for safety. They will really come in handy later on!

Look at the size of the ice chunks here!

Look at the size of the ice chunks here!

At the end of the second road I turned into, I came to a narrow hut and a flight of steps marked with a banner. This was the edge of the national park, and from that point on it was nothing but trees, fluffy snow, and the winding narrow path…

Depending on how fast you walk (and how slippery your shoes are), this should take you between 20-30 minutes to get from beginning to end

Depending on how fast you walk (and how slippery your shoes are), this should take you between 20-40 minutes to get from beginning to end

It was so beautiful and peaceful here, with the fresh snow

It was so beautiful and peaceful here, with the fresh snow

The path is really quite narrow, when you consider that visitors go and come back on the same road...

The path is really quite narrow, when you consider that visitors go and come back on the same trail…

Jigokudani is on the edge of the Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park. Naturally, the trees here are quite tall and a lovely shade of red-brown against the snow

Jigokudani is on the edge of the Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park. The trees here are quite tall, and a lovely shade of red-brown against the snow.

The parts of the path that curved were always incredibly photogenic!

The parts of the path that curved were always incredibly photogenic!

Most of the people visiting at the time were either in pairs or small groups. At some point along the way though everyone’s individual pace scattered the larger groups, so it wasn’t difficult to pass by someone who was walking slower.

However, a word of warning about the path. It’s not flat, and there are no barriers. This meant that there were lumps of ice everywhere, slush and mud everywhere else. Even with regular city boots, there were sections of the path where I had to shuffle along granny-style or risk falling down/over the edge. If you’re out of practice with walking on ice, hiking boots or similar might be a good idea.

An example of the narrowness of the path

An example of the narrowness of the path

Never completely trust a sign that says "almost there" instead of the actual remaining distance...

Never completely trust a sign that says “almost there” instead of the actual remaining distance…

After what felt like a very long time, I came upon an “encouraging” sign, and shortly after I left the forest. The path continued past a small visitor’s centre (which is a really good place to warm up after seeing the monkeys) and a small local onsen before I reached the river.

The metaphorical "light at the end of the tunnel"

The metaphorical “light at the end of the tunnel”

In case you ever wondered about how much snow Nagano gets...

In case you ever wondered about how much snow Nagano gets…

Such a lovely view...

Such a lovely view…

A series of stairs beside the river led me up a hill and along a bridge to a small waterfall. Next to it was the monkeys’ onsen!

My first monkey sighting from up on the hill

My first monkey sighting from up on the hill

Ah, all the tourists...

Ah, all the tourists…

A monkey perched on the bridge railing (one of my favourite pictures this trip!)

A monkey perched on the bridge railing (one of my favourite pictures this trip!)

The monkeys are wild, though they are also incredibly comfortable ignoring the humans and their cameras. True to their curious nature, some of the younger ones kept snatching at bright keychains or dangling key charms because they thought it was food (note: feeding them or staring directly into their eyes is taboo, for obvious reasons).

The pool was actually not that big, and you always had to watch where you were stepping

The pool was actually not that big, and you always had to watch where you were stepping

Oblivious to all the paparazzi

Relaxed and oblivious to all the paparazzi

Ah, watching them made me want to go into an onsen too...

Ah, watching them made me want to go relax in an onsen too…

Monkeys have social hierarchies, but they operated on strong rules of mutual cooperation too

Monkeys have social hierarchies, but they operated on strong rules of mutual cooperation too!

Babies are usually born around summer, but there were some young ones at the onsen that day too

Babies are usually born around summer, but there were some young ones that day too

While it was busy nursing, its mother checked for insects

While it was busy nursing, its mother checked for insects

Even among monkeys, there were some troublemakers and some really calm ones...

Even among monkeys, there are some troublemakers and some really calm ones… (Also, wild monkeys don’t use toilets)

I stayed there for about 30 minutes, taking between 100-150 photos, but one of the monkeys stood out to me. After looking at them for so long, every monkey’s face strongly resembled human ones, but this one almost looked like someone I’ve seen before (or maybe it’s just very similar to a typical Japanese oji-san face?). Either way, he was my favourite!

My oji-san monkey

My oji-san monkey

My oji-san monkey

That expression!

All the "grandpas" relaxing together

All the “grandpas” relaxing together

Finally, it was getting a bit too chilly for me, so reluctantly I left along the same road I came by. Though the entire trip took over half a day, it was completely worth the trek here!

A sweet goodbye smile

A sweet goodbye smile

One last monkey picture!

One last monkey picture!

The absolutely gorgeous view as I waited for the bus back to Nagano City

The absolutely gorgeous view as I waited for the bus back to Nagano City

The monkeys sure picked a beautiful place to call home!

The monkeys sure picked a beautiful place to call home!

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Zenko-ji (善光寺)

I made it back to Nagano City around 3 PM, and for a lack of things to do (I had really only planned to see the monkeys) I wandered up to Zenko-ji.

Niou-mon (or Two Kings' Gate)

Niou-mon (or Two Kings’ Gate)

One of the "two kings" guarding the gate

One of the “two kings” guarding the gate

I made the mistake of not brushing up on my history before visiting here. Otherwise, I probably would’ve been in more awe of one of the most important Buddhist temples in the region. At the very least I would’ve been impressed with its involvement with Uesugi Kenshin during the Sengoku period…

San-mon, which has a plaque written by an Imperial prince

San-mon, which has a plaque written by an Imperial prince

As I arrived near the end of the day (all temples close at 4 PM, it seems) there were not many tourists. The evening prayers were in session as well, so no pictures of the spacious but dimly-lit interior. I didn’t know there was an underground passage either, so I left after listening to a bit of the monks’ chanting.

Hon-dou, or the Main Hall

Hon-dou, or the Main Hall

Looking at the back of San-mon from the top of the steps of the Main Hall

Looking at the back of San-mon from the top of the steps of the Main Hall

One of the affiliated temples located on the compound

One of the affiliated temples located on the compound

Moral of the story: Do your research before going into a temple or a shrine…

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Matsumoto Castle (松本城)

On my last day of the trip, I detoured out of Nagano City to the nearby Matsumoto City in the middle of the prefecture. Taking the local train between the two cities was a good decision; the ride was longer, but the breath-taking scenery more than made up for it!

I was lucky there weren't many passengers at the time

I was lucky there weren’t many passengers at the time

While Nagano City developed from a temple town (centered around Zenko-ji), Matsumoto was a castle town. Its castle, Matsumoto Castle, is Japan’s oldest and a designated national treasure! Naturally, it was on my bucket list to see!

The stunning Matsumoto Castle

The stunning Matsumoto Castle

Originally built in the Sengoku period by the Norimasa family, the castle was known as Karasu-jo (Crow Castle) for its unique and elegant black exterior. Though the outer castle was dismantled during the Meiji Revolution, the main keep, two gates, and the moat are still preserved.

I was so excited to get to the castle, I ran along this promenade to get to the best view of the castle across the moat.

I was so excited to get to the castle, I ran along this promenade to get to the best view!

At the souvenir shops in Matsumoto, I saw a painting with the red moat. I liked it so much, I tried to recapture the same angle in this picture (there were sakura blossoms in the painting though...)

At the souvenir shops in Matsumoto, I saw a painting with the red bridge. I liked it so much, I tried to recapture the same angle in this picture (it was too early for the same sakura blossoms in the painting though…)

A panorama of the moat, bridge, main keep, and the Taiko-mon (Drum Gate)

A panorama of the moat, bridge, main keep, and the Taiko-mon (Drum Gate)

I fell in love with this castle at first sight, and it was such a lovely day too!

I fell in love with this castle at first sight, and it was such a lovely day too!

One more picture, because it's just so beautiful and grand

One more picture, because it’s just so beautiful and grand

The most amazing part is that the wooden interiors and the external stonework are completely original — it was incredible to walk along the 400-year-old halls and climb the (scarily) steep staircases that real samurais used to move through!

The Drum Gate, bearing the Toyotomi crest

The Drum Gate, bearing the Toyotomi crest

Looking good for 400-year-old wood!

Looking good for 400-year-old wood!

View of the courtyard from one of the archers' windows

View of the courtyard from one of the archers’ windows

I can only imagine how difficult it would've been to descend these stairs in full armor and wearing slippery tabi socks...

I can only imagine how difficult/terrifying it would’ve been to descend these stairs in full armour and wearing slippery tabi socks…

There were several castle attendants throughout the many floors, to help direct visitors and protect the interiors from vandalism. The were generally older and slightly grumpy, but I’m confidant the one stationed at the 4th floor stairs got the most chances to laugh — I was not the only visitor clinging to the railings for dear life while descending in my socks…

The top floor, with windows at all four directions to allow the generals the best position to direct their forces against an invasion

The top floor, with windows at all four directions to allow generals the best view to direct their forces against an invasion

The castle also had a small gun museum, detailing early gun warfare in Japan. Matsumoto castle had archers' windows and gun slots both incorporated into the walls' defences.

The castle also had a small gun museum, detailing early gun warfare in Japan. Matsumoto Castle has both archers’ windows and gun slots incorporated into the walls’ defences

TOP: the main keep, and second tower; BOTTOM: the third tower, with a "moon-viewing" room

TOP: the main keep, and second tower; BOTTOM: the third tower, with a “moon-viewing” room

The interior of the moon-viewing room

The interior of the moon-viewing room

The castle was easy to get to (about 20-minutes walk from the station), but there’s also a very convenient sightseeing city loop bus. The neighbourhood around the castle is paved with cobblestones and it’s very charming to wander through. All-in-all, a nice place to day-trip from either Nagano or Tokyo, and the castle is worth every effort to get to Matsumoto (I’m very glad I went!).

The cute mascot of Matsumoto City, compared to the attendant dressed in full armour

The cute mascot of Matsumoto City, compared to the attendant dressed in full samurai armour

Matsumoto Castle, with a view of the mountains

One last picture of Matsumoto Castle, with a view of the mountains

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Food in Nagano

Being a landlocked prefecture, Nagano isn’t particularly known for its seafood dishes. However, it is very famous for its soba (helped by the pure mountain waters), and large dumplings called oyaki.

One of many shops located near Zenko-ji that specialized in handmade noodle dishes

One of many shops located near Zenko-ji that specialized in handmade noodle dishes

The newly-renovated JR Nagano station has a shopping centre attached to it, called Midori. On the first and basement levels there are many food shops, and omiyage (souvenir) shops. Several of them sell oyaki, so that’s the most convenient way to try some of these dumplings. To my taste, it resembled a meat bun (which were never my favourite in dim-sum, except for the char-siu one), and it was just as filling. The shop staff will always ask if you want it warmed up when you buy some — if you’re eating it right away, say “yes”!

My mushroom, vegetable, and pork oyaki. I also tried some iced amazake from another store on the same floor!

My mushroom and chicken oyaki. I also tried some iced amazake from another store on the same floor!

In Matsumoto, I had heard about a reputable soba restaurant, that also offered horse sashimi. I was curious, so I stopped by the flagship store of Kobayashi for lunch after my castle visit.

Front entrance of the store, which was situated on a slightly hidden road

Front entrance of the store, which was situated on a slightly hidden road

My soba lunch set, with extra side order of sashimi

My soba lunch set, with extra side order of sashimi

Like all proper soba restaurants, you had  to grate your own wasabi

In proper soba restaurants, you get to grate your own wasabi!

Close-up of the horse meat

Close-up of the horse meat

The soba was quite good, and it was fun grating my own wasabi for the dipping sauce. As for the sashimi, it was an interesting experience. It didn’t taste like anything I’ve tried before, but if I had to compare, I would say it’s the closest to beef. I got the feeling that, rather than served raw, horse meat would taste excellent if properly grilled. It was passable though, if eaten with the ginger and dipped in ponzu sauce…

At the end of a soba meal, you're sometimes offered the waiter the noodles were boiled it. They say it has a lot of nutrition, but since it's quite bland, you can mix in some of the dipping sauce for flavour

At the end of a soba meal, you’re sometimes offered the water the noodles were boiled in. They say it has a lot of nutrition, but since it’s quite bland, you can mix in some of the dipping sauce for flavour

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As mentioned at the beginning, I went to Nagano in mid-March, but I’ve only uploaded this now because I’ve been taking a break from blogging. I had entertained thoughts about giving up on this platform, but during the past half-year I haven’t stopped travelling, and I still dislike the way Facebook renders HQ photos….so, I’ll be posting here once again. On the backlog are posts about Singapore, Himeji Castle, Tokyo & Kanazawa, an upcoming trip to Lake Biwa & Uji, and a really long summary post of Osaka (and all the bucket list items I’ve checked off there). 

Until next time!

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